In 1964 Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, high school teacher and self-appointed director of Zambia’s national space program, had the bold ambition of beating the USA and the Soviet Union in the space race, and landing a Zambian on the Moon.
Fortunately Africa’s space programs now look much more promising. In fact, in the last decade the continent has entered a space race.
Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and Algeria have taken a renewed interests in their existing programs, with Ghana and Kenya joining the club, launching their own space projects in the last few years.
Two big players
While no African country is within realistic reach of moon travel yet, Nigeria and South Africa have by far the most advanced space programs on the continent.
If successful, they claim the telescope will enable astronomers to look much deeper into space — at the sensitivity of many times current telescopes. The first phase will cost approximately $790 million.
“What drove this project was a need for the next generation radio telescope with a preference for the southern hemisphere as then you can view the centre of our galaxy,” says Carla Sharpe, Business Manager at SKA.
“When you’re studying space with an optical telescope you’re only observing the visible light, whereas a radio telescope can observe the electromagnetic spectrum over a number of frequencies,” she adds.
However, Sharpe disagrees that there is an African space race per se. Instead, African countries see space programs as an important part of economic development.
“In general African countries accept that developing technology drives growth and that space is a great area for technology development. It’s accepted as a new market we can still get into,” Sharpe continues.
Although space programs in Africa are frequently criticized for being a waste of money, particularly with the presence of more immediate concerns.
Sharpe responds: “Space science and technology is not just rockets. It’s everything from data analytics, data storage and transport and more. There are so many areas of development within the arena which are classed as space science.”
South Africa has set its sights on space observation, but what about space travel?
In that field, Nigeria is leading the charge. They’re planning to be the first African country to send an astronaut into space.
Nigeria is aiming to create a world-class space industry. “The focus of our space program is economic development,” Felix Ale, communications chief of The National Space Research and Development Agency (NASDRA), tells CNN.
Africa’s other space programs
Aside from Nigeria and South Africa, there are also a number of interesting developments from other African countries.
African countries working together
Across the continent new programs represent a growing appetite for space technology, but the continent still lags far behind in the global space race. It could be argued that a collaborative effort could help the continent catch up.
But there is no pan-African space program in the works just yet.
It largely fell on deaf ears.
“My personal opinion is that the African Space Policy is a great step forward. The African Space Agency will be beneficial in the long term but is a little premature. I think countries need to develop and grow their own capabilities first,” Sharpe says.
An official African Space Agency might be a long way off, but national space programs are looking at ways of working together.
“I think collaboration will be the only the answer for us to develop forward,” Sharpe says.